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By Sarah Hapgood

The hunting-party broke up when the rain began to fall once more. Hillyard, Mieps and Ransey loaded the sack-truck with the rabbits they had bagged. “Not a bad haul”, said Hillyard “Should please Adam hopefully”.

Mieps was being uncomfortably ogled by one of the village huntsmen. At thin, rather keen-looking young man had taken quite a shine to her, and kept making any old excuse to to hang around in her vicinity.

“I want to go back to the ship”, Mieps grunted, impatiently.

“We are, we are”, said Ransey.

“I hope Kieran’s meditating in his cabin when we get back”, said Hillyard.

“Hold on a minute”, Ransey paused and looked behind Hillyard, further into the forest “We’re being watched”.

The three of them looked through the trees. Facing them was the extraordinary sight of an obscenely fat, bald man, completely naked. His eyes glinted unnaturally, and his mouth was twisted in a horrible leer.

“I don’t like the look of him”, said Hillyard.

The strange creature backed away slowly, all the while leering at them like a demonic Cheshire Cat, until he disappeared out of view into the depths of the forest.

Bardin was informed about this odd visitation when the others got back to the ship.

“That settles it then”, he said, standing in the midst of the corpses of dead rabbits being dumped outside the galley door “We leave here tomorrow. If we get any urge to explore the forest further we can do that further up-river, away from the village”.

He went into his cabin where he found Bengo sobbing by the window.

“Now what on earth’s the matter with you?!” said Bardin.

“Oh don’t shout at me, Bardin please”, said Bengo.

“I wasn’t shouting!” said Bardin, and then realised he had to take his voice down a notch “I’m not shouting. What’s the matter?”

“I dunno”, said Bengo “It suddenly came over me. I got all emotional. Joby says I’m carrying on like a pregnant woman”.

“No, you’ve just been eating too many scones that’s all”, said Bardin, patting Bengo’s belly “It’s this damn place. That hairy nutter Hoowie was right. It’s having an effect on all of us, and the crazy thing is I can’t tell why. The village itself isn’t particularly sinister. We’ve been in worse places. Anyway, we’re leaving tomorrow”.

“I thought the villagers wanted to throw a feast”, said Bengo.

“I don’t believe that’s going to happen”, said Bardin “I think they said that just because they felt they had to. Some residual hangover of hospitality. We’d probably be doing them a favour by leaving”.

“It’s all this talk of vampires”, said Bengo “I keep feeling as though those two odd women we saw further back up the river are still around. I haven’t seen them or anything, it’s just a stupid feeling”.

“That might account for why you’re feeling so emotional”, said Bardin “We should talk to Kieran about this sometime, but leave it a little while. I want to get away from here first. Will you be alright tonight?”

“Oh yes”, Bengo nodded.

“Good”, Bardin squeezed his arm “If you need something to cheer you up then I’m probably going to get walloped after supper, purely for Hoowie’s amusement! What a life eh!”

More monsoon conditions erupted as the darkness of evening fell. The rain came down with an unsettling intensity.

“Not exactly a nice cooling evening shower”, said Adam.

Bardin emerged from his cabin wearing his bath-robe over his shorts.

“I have so missed the swish of the starch, old love”, said Adam.

“I don’t know why but I didn’t feel I could go trouserless in this place”, said Bardin, slipping the robe off his shoulders.

Adam spanked him with the butter paddle outside the galley door, watched attentively by Bengo and Hoowie. The spanking was brisk and thorough, and, much to Hoowie’s satisfaction, Bardin yelped several times throughout it.

Hillyard appeared out of the dining-room just as it came to a close.

“I was going to suggest we all sleep in the saloon tonight”, he said “I can’t think of ay reason why, other than I just think it would be a good idea”.

“Sounds an excellent idea”, said Adam “Do you think we should do a night-watch tonight, Bardin?” said Hillyard.

“No, don’t bother”, said Bardin, who was still leaning across Adam’s lap, his hands on the floor and his hair hanging down “Just make sure everything’s as tightly locked up as possible”.

“I was hoping you’d say that”, said Hillyard, squeezing Bardin’s buttocks.

Bengo helped Bardin to his feet.

“I’m amazed, after your session with Julian earlier, that you could manage to sit down to do it”, said Bardin, rubbing his behind.

“Be careful what you say”, said Adam “As I shall probably smack you again tomorrow morning!”

“Duh”, said Bardin, rolling his eyes.

“What a strange little place this has been”, said Adam, after everyone had settled into the communal bed in the saloon.

“If anyone says that one more time”, said Ransey.

“Well I’m sorry but I think it’s worth saying”, said Adam “It’s not an ugly place or anything like that, but it just seem so forlorn”.

“They’re constantly living on the edge of Evil, we’ve said that before”, said Kieran “I wish you’d all let me go into the forest and see what I could do”.

“What monstrous arrogance to think that everywhere needs you to sort it out”, said Julian, from the other end of the bed.

“I don’t think that”, said Kieran, leaping to his knees “Give me a break, I’m trying to help”.

“Will you both pipe down!” said Ransey “Or I’m go sleep in the dining-room”.

“Is that a promise?” said Julian.

“Behave Julian”, said Hillyard.

“Yeah, behave Julian”, said Joby.

“For the last time”, said Bardin We will do more exploring of the forest when we’ve got away from Somba. We’ll be able to do what we like then”.

“That is true”, said Adam.

“Let’s listen to the rain instead”, said Finia.

“Yeah, and hope it doesn’t come through the roof”, said Joby.

The night was peppered with strange bumps and thumps from the far distance. When it was ascertained that these weren’t being caused by anyone breaking into the ship, there was some relief. But there was no getting away from the fact that it did sound like distant gunfire, coming from the depths of the forest.

At the first grey, watery glimmers of daybreak Bardin went up on deck. He found Kieran standing by the bulwark, looking like a ghost in his hooded robe.

“Dawn can often feel spooky”, said Bardin “But this feels even more so. Particularly with you standing there like that”.

“Like what?” said Kieran.

“Like you’re dead or something”, said Bardin “You look like a ghost, a really creepy one”.

“Oh good”, said Kieran “I’ll scare any vampires we meet then! Are we heading off straightaway?”

“I don’t see why not”, said Bardin “It’ll get the villagers out of being hospitable to us any longer. It’s making me feel uncomfortable. Like taking sweets from a starving baby”.

They set off back down the river. Bardin admitted he had a grim determination to get to the west coast, and was keen to put every hour of daylight into doing so. They took breakfast in shifts. Julian electrified the first shift with some news of his own.

“I’m giving up the cigars”, he said.

“Is that what you were doing down in the hold earlier?” said Ransey.

“Yes, locking them away in an old cash-box”, said Julian.

“YOU?!” Bardin exclaimed “You’re giving up smoking??”

“I don’t think I can take much more of this”, said Joby “Everybody’s acting bloody weird. Kieran’ll be giving up religion next”.

“What’s brought this on, Julian?” said Adam.

“Hoowie told me he hated the smell and the taste on me”, said Julian.

[Hoowie was currently feeding the boiler down in the hold].

“Well what’s taken him so long to say so?” said Bengo.

“That would be bloody typical of Hoowie”, said Bardin “To take several years to make any sense”.

“He said he hadn’t felt so compelled to say it before”, said Julian.

“It’s this bloody river”, said Joby “It’s having this weird effect on everybody”.

“It does seem to be”, said Adam.

“If you were really determined to give them up”, said Ransey to Julian “You’d have chucked them over the side”.

“Oh now Ransey, really!” said Adam.

“This is just typical of him”, said Julian “Austere bloodless Ministry drone all the way through. Inhuman. No sacrifice ever great enough”.

“You can’t blame me for being sceptical”, said Ransey “You’ve seemed surgically attached to those filthy things for so long now”.

“Hoowie told me there used to be a notorious stage door lurker back at the Cabaret”, said Julian “Smoked cigars all the time”.

“Ooh I know the one he means, looked like a fat toad”, said Bengo “We were all warned about him. He had a terrible reputation. A complete beast”.

“But why’s he suddenly remembered him now?” Bardin squawked “After all this time?”

Julian shrugged.

“He just suddenly came out with it”, he said “I thought I can’t have that. Reminding him of some disgusting pervert. So. They’ve been locked away. And they shall stay locked away, if only to prove Ministry Hitman wrong!”

Julian swept out of the room.

“That was completely uncalled-for!” said Ransey.

“Not really, old love”, said Adam “We do need to encourage him”.

“I still think this river’s having a bonkers effect on everyone”, said Joby.

“Yeah, you might suddenly get all positive and cheerful”, said Hillyard.

“Now that I do find unnerving when it happens”, said Adam.

“Well as long as Bardy doesn’t give up starchy underwear I don’t mind”, said Bengo.

“Very unlikely”, said Bardin.

“Huh”, said Joby “We’d have said that about Julian giving up cigars yesterday!”

Bardin went and rooted out Hoowie in the depths of the hold.

“What made you suddenly think of that old pervert after all this time?” he asked.

“I don’t know”, said Hooiwe, slamming the main door of the boiler “I can’t say I’ve ever really liked the taste of it on him, but I didn’t wanna upset him. It suddenly just came out”.

“Did that pervy old swine ever have you?” said Bardin, bluntly.

“Let’s not go over it, Bardin”, said Hoowie “Those days are best forgotten. You know that. Ully did his best to protect us, but he couldn’t be everywhere at once”.

“I know”, said Bardin “And some of them were such crafty shits. And I was too busy keeping an eye on Bengo. Let’s face i, he didn’t have the common-sense to look out for himself. Too trusting by half”.

“You were so busy looking out for everyone else you didn’t look out for yourself”, said Hoowie “I love you, Bardin”.

“Don’t”, Bardin looked on the verge of tears “Joby’s right, this damn river. This whole fucking area in fact!”

“Come in here”, said Adam to Ransey “I’ll make us a nice cup of tea”.

In the galley they stumbled upon Joby swigging from a bottle of cooking-brandy.

“Joby, that is very naughty!” Adam scolded “You should know by now that the cooking-brandy is absolutely sacred”.

“I needed a lift”, said Joby, wiping his mouth “After Hillyard telling me yet again what a grumpy old sod I am”.

“You should worry”, said Ransey “I’ve been called a bloodless inhuman Ministry drone!”

“I think we all need to calm down a bit”, said Adam, putting the kettle on the hob.

“Not much chance of that”, said Joby.

“Well not with you hitting the bottle, no”, said Adam, removing it from him and putting the stopper back in.

Kieran tore down the quarterdeck steps and into the galley, breathless and agitated.

“There’s too much dashing in and out going on round here”, said Joby “Now what?

“Just seen a shape up on deck”, Kieran panted “A misty shape. It moved across the deck and vanished”.

“You’re incredible you are”, said Joby “All the things you’ve come up against in your life, and you’re scared of a misty shape!”

“Joby, not a-kidding you”, said Kieran “It was as eerie as hell”.

“Sit down, Patsy”, said Adam “I’ll give you a nip of brandy”.

“Hey!” Joby interjected.

“That’s if there’s any left of course”, said Adam.

“How big was this shape?” said Ransey.

“Sort of human size”, said Kieran.

“Yeah, it would be”, said Joby.

“What IS the matter with you?!” said Adam.

“Nothing”, said Joby “Just that eerie human shapes puts the tin-hat on things”.

“That will make Bardin more determined than ever to get to the west coast”, said Adam.

“I think we’re going to have a task to do before we get there”, said Kieran.

“Not one we’re gonna like from the sounds of things”, said Joby.

“Well whatever it is, we can be sure that Bardin will want to get it over with quickly”, said Adam.

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